GreenBase is a feature and news section of JamBase that focuses on the intersection between music and the environment. In GreenBase pieces, you can keep track of what your favorite bands, festivals and venues are doing to help the planet. You can read more green music news on the GreenBase blog.
It’s not often that you run into a band like Panjea that has a mission statement. Sure, past decades have yielded still-touring acts with strong political overtones going back to Bob Dylan, U2 and Rage Against the Machine. But the more recent wave of acts, with rare exceptions like Michael Franti and State Radio, have opted to leave politics out of their music. Enter Panjea, an Afro-pop collaborative with big goals. Specifically, the group is a “project set on healing the world.” The band takes its name from the supercontinent Pangea, and their goal is to use music to unite people as closely as the continents were once united.
GreenBase was lucky enough to catch up with the band over the summer at Rothbury (read the Roth review here), where for most of the weekend band members were scattered all over the giant festival, sitting in with Railroad Earth and State Radio, assisting with the art installations and even teaching the crowd how to play a giant flying monkey drum set. With band members living in New York, Boulder and San Francisco and constantly on tour with their various other projects, it’s not often that they all get together in one place. Over the course of an hour, we talked about the fragile political situation in Zimbabwe, the challenges facing the next U.S. President and the opportunities for music to have a positive impact on people and the environment.
The collective, made up of a core group of about six musicians but often exceeding a dozen people in its rare stage appearances, blends political sensibilities with insanely catchy African rhythms and instruments. Listening to the group perform at Rothbury, it was hard to believe that anything this melodic and danceable could be a song of protest. That’s partly by design, according to trumpet player and keyboardist Danny Sears.
Sears, like everyone in the band, is truly a musician’s musician and definitely knows a thing or two about grooves. Casual music fans might not know these names, but they probably know the bands that Panjea’s members have played with. When he’s not jamming with Panjea, Sears frequently appears with Railroad Earth, Guster and The String Cheese Incident.
The String Cheese Incident, not coincidentally, is one of the reasons for Panjea’s initial success. SCI mandolin and violin player Michael Kang is the most famous member of Panjea. Like almost everyone else in the band, the South Korean-born artist has spent plenty of time outside the U.S., and these experiences have informed both his politics and his music. SCI fans accustomed to the apolitical nature of that band might be a bit surprised to hear Kang speak so passionately about issues like globalization and its effect on the environment.
“Our way of life transcends national boundaries. It’s coming to the time where we are not going to have to look at what’s going on in our backyards but recognize that the planet is our backyard,” says Kang. “It’s a matter of just recognizing, being grateful for what we have. The first thing that we all have the power to do is just conserve the stuff that we use.”
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The band’s political and environmental messages have strong roots in Zimbabwe and southern Africa, where Berry spent nearly a decade learning the mbira, a traditional African thumb piano, as well as the ngoma drum. Berry became a star in Africa by the time he was 23 and soon started to impress musicians on this side of the Atlantic. A chance meeting in New York sometime around 2002 or 2003 with current band saxophonist Chris Cuzme soon led to the introduction of Berry and Sears and the beginnings of Panjea. In 2006, Berry and Kang traveled to Africa for several months and they returned for a second trip in 2007. It was while living in Zimbabwe that Berry met Zimanai Masanago, Panjea’s guitar player. Masanago, a bandleader and songwriter in his own right, also pens political songs written in his native Shona dialect. “Shona culture uses a lot of proverbs,” says Masanago. “When elders talk to each other and to children, they use proverbs and very simple things to talk about very big things. That’s the way I approach the songs that I write in Shona for our band, Pachedu.”
Coming home is a bit of an issue at times for some of the band members. Several of them, like Martinique-born bassist Patrice Blanchard, have spent so much time on the road that “home” has become somewhat of a nebulous concept. And although all of the band members are currently based in the U.S., some of them are worried about the political future of the country they now call home.
“I’m not American, but I’m so concerned about your next election,” says Blanchard. “If you guys [make] the right choice, the American President being very influential, that could change the whole landscape. Bush could have been one of the most important presidents for starting the green revolution, but he decided not to. The next one has to. Otherwise, I think I’ll move. I’ll go to Australia, where the environment is a big issue. I’ll go there [laughs].”
Kang, on the other hand, isn’t having any of this talk of moving.
“I’m not a [U.S.] citizen either,” he says. “I’ve chosen to stick around and become a part of the solution. When I [traveled] to Africa, it made me realize this is why I’ve spent so much time in the States, because there’s actually something we can do about it. That led me to want to get involved with becoming part of the solution in whatever way [I can]. If we’re not going to do it, nobody else is. I’m not going to count on any politician to do it for me. We can find ways to do a lot of this in our communities.”
Community is a reoccurring theme throughout the band’s conversations and music. Panjea is, after all, a band focused on transcending geographic and political boundaries and bringing people together. In a world where we are increasingly disconnected from each other despite the ease of being connected at all times, the band is using its music to bring us together. So, it’s not surprising that Berry wraps up our conversation with a message to JamBase readers about community.
“I just want to say how thankful I am to JamBase and all the fans who are a part of it, because it’s really a forum in which musicians can be empowered. It feels like we’re taking the power back to the people through JamBase. It’s a real forum for us to communicate directly to the fans, as I like to call them.”
Panjea play this Friday and Saturday (12/12 & 12/13) in San Francisco and two nights in Colorado for New Years. Complete dates available here).
Panjea recently re-released their entire catalog digitally through reapandsow. You can check it out here.
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